Southern California’s Neoliberal Impacts During the Pandemic

I live in Southern California, where generations of my family have lived since the 1880s. All I know about the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1919 I learned through history books in university. My grandmother wouldn’t talk about it. Oddly, in the case of a pandemic, the past to me is not so very helpful.

In the case of the present pandemic, first-hand observation will have to suffice. Since shutting down for two weeks to “bend the curve” on March 16, Los Angeles County has lived under endless restriction. The closest thing we have seen to normalcy is restaurant dining outdoors and limited numbers of people being allowed to shop in essential stores as defined by California Gov. Gavin Newsom. Los Angeles County never really saw new cases of the coronavirus go down significantly. Now it is rampant, and our hospitals are full of the merely sick and the almost dead.

Gov. Newsom and local politicians impose more and more regulations. They are constantly on television, radio and social media imploring obedience and sacrifice. Southern California has divided into two warring camps screaming over each other. One camp insists the regulations do not work. Though Southern California has been under the longest and most severe lockdown of anyplace in the nation, it has continued with first, the second highest, and now, for the last four months, the highest, rates of infection and death. Their battle cry is “Open Now.”

The second group is insistent the first group is wrong and the cause of the spread. They assert that people have been too lax and that what is needed is a police state to force total compliance with every order no matter how lacking in scientific basis, cost benefit analysis or reason. Their battle cry, screamed with self-righteous indignation, is: “Just Obey; Disobedience is MURDER.”

Both groups are ridiculous because both sides are totally ignoring the actual cause of the spread – neoliberal economic policy.

Neoliberalism postulates that capital should be allowed to invest globally, search for ever-cheaper places to manufacture product and allow the rich of the world to invest wherever and whenever they wish. It also postulates that open borders are good because they allow the flow of a steady supply of cheap labor. Allegedly this somehow will be good for workers because cheaper goods will lead to everyone being employed and will mean wages can be lower and when wages are lower all workers can be employed. Like all self-interested economics, this is dressed in sparkly packages festooned with acres of ribbons of dried, pressed and perfumed bullshit.

If we examine Southern California over the last 40 years, we find that the effects of neoliberalism have been as stark and dramatic as the differences in our winter day and night temperatures. California’s global elite want their own backyard environmentally pristine, so we have the strictest environmental production standards in the world for every industry from steelmaking to hamburger flipping. Year by year, as standards become too expensive for industry to survive, businesses move to other states or other nations. The resulting job loss causes an increased labor supply and therefore a reduction in wages. Exacerbating this problem are the large number of Eastern European, Russian, Armenian, Chinese, Irish, Canadian and Latino illegal aliens arriving in Southern California competing for jobs. All the while, local law enforcement looks the other way regarding their legal status. Although having one of the highest costs of living in the nation, Southern California has one of the lowest average incomes.

Housing, however, remains extremely expensive in California. For the last 20 years, at least, wealthy European, Asian and Middle Eastern investors have invested in residential Southern California real estate. There is a GLOBAL market for these units that has NOTHING to do with local conditions. As many as 25 percent of the new units produced in the last decade are empty and exist as group residences for the use of extended family members going to university or transacting business. Or, they can serve as “bug-out” homes in case the situation in Turkey, Saudi Arabia or China gets bad.

The triple results of neoliberal economic policy in Southern California, reduced industrial employment, lower cost legal and illegal labor and inflated real estate costs for workers because of increased demand for area real estate by non-nationals, cause most Southern Californians under age 45 to live with multiple unrelated adults and to work two or three jobs to make ends meet. Most Southern Californians under the age of 45 have been working 50 to 60 hours a week for a decade or longer. They are in a constant state of economic anxiety. They have lived on the razor’s edge of eviction and addition to the number of homeless who live under a freeway bridge for a decade or longer.

They can’t stay home when their throat is scratchy. Staying home is a step closer to living under that bridge where no one will come to help them and a long, slow, humiliating, dehumanizing, agonizing early death. So rather than stay at home, they go to their two or three jobs working as an orderly in a hospital, a janitor in a rest home, a burger flipper at McDonald’s. They go to their job teaching English and social studies to inmates at a local jail and then checking out shoppers at a nonunion supermarket. They tell themselves they can’t go through becoming homeless for just a cold.

These victims of neoliberal economic policy in Southern California are the superspreaders, and we have given them literally no viable choice. So no, it’s not the people sitting outside eating dinner; it’s the cook, waitress and checkout counter person who are the spreaders. It’s not the nursing home patients or their families; it’s the nursing home staff. It’s not the doctors and nurses in the hospital; it’s the CNAs and the orderlies. It’s not due to college education. It’s not due to ethnicity. It’s due to economic policies that have stripped the middle- and lower-middle classes of everything but a razor thin margin of survival. Obedience can’t happen if it means homelessness.